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Middle schoolers engage tiny learners with science fun

preschoolers sit on ground and watch a robot move
May 19, 2015

It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday and children in Veronica Hunts-in-Winter’s preschool class are scrambling for spots on a colorful numbers-and-letters rug. At the front of the class, Sossaman Middle School eighth-grader Jacob Good is asking them what they know about robots.

There are a few comments here and there, but not everyone seems interested. Good tries another angle.

“How many of you have ever played with Legos?” he asks.

Instantly, hands fly up in the air followed by shouts of “Ooh, me!” and “I love Legos!”

Good is joined in the classroom at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College Preschool with several other Sossaman students who are there to share their robotics knowledge with the preschoolers as part of a project for their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) club. One of the robots they are showcasing is made out of Legos; something almost all children can relate to.

“If you’re able to communicate how something works to someone, it means you understand it,” said Donna Jagielski, instructional coach of technology for the Higley Unified School District, which includes Sossaman Middle School in Queen Creek.

The STEM club came about as part of Jagielski’s research in the Doctor of Education in Leadership and Innovation program at Arizona State University’s Teachers College.

“As an assistant principal just prior to applying to the ASU program, I worked in a high school where students struggled academically … [and] lacked motivation to further their education. I saw the students flourish in the STEM-based class because they were given the opportunity to interact with one another, seek many different types of solutions rather than get the ‘right answer’ and to work on issues in which they could claim ownership,” she said. “It is evident that STEM learning can increase motivation, self-efficacy and empower all students.”

With that in mind, Jagielski set out to implement STEM clubs at schools throughout her district. So far, four of the 12 schools in the Higley district – one elementary school, both of its middle schools and one of its two high schools – have received seed funding from the Science Foundation Arizona to start STEM clubs this year.

Several of the district’s elementary schools have started STEM clubs on their own and have also begun hosting “STEM Nights,” which feature grade-level activities and the STEM clubs from the district’s middle and high schools, as well as outside organizations and industries.

“Our students have had the opportunity to visit Tesla Motors in Scottsdale, compete in robotics competitions and view the documentary ‘Underwater Dreams,’ which tells the story of Carl Hayden High School’s robotics team,” said Jagielski.

Bringing older students together with younger ones to share knowledge is beneficial to both parties; the younger children get early exposure to STEM-based concepts while the older students get a chance to prove their understanding of those ideas by teaching them.

“When students share their stories, it spreads the excitement to others,” Jagielski said. “An outstanding goal [of the STEM clubs] is to have the students themselves spread the passion and excitement they have to others through leadership and mentoring.”

Back in the classroom, Good is doing an excellent job of explaining the mechanics of the robot to the children by relating it to things they understand. The light sensor on the robot, for example, he explains is like its eyes – the wheels and tracks function as its legs, and so on.

Hunts-in-Winter looks on in awe as time ticks by and the preschoolers – an age group notorious for a short attention span – maintain interest.

“This is amazing,” she says. “These are 3- to 5-year-olds and they have stayed engaged for an hour. That’s unheard of.”

Fellow eighth-grader Mykah Long says learning about technology at a young age is especially important considering the pace at which it moves.

“With technology advancing and being used in fields like medicine, where doctors can use robots to perform surgery, showing these kids how it works while they’re young gives them a head start,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean the middle schoolers aren’t learning anything.

“Personally, I loved the programming part of it and seeing what I can do to make it move autonomously,” said Sossaman eighth-grader Trenton Weber.

Weber calls himself an “engineer at heart,” with aspirations to eventually design and program robots, or become an aerospace engineer.

Sossaman Middle School robotics teacher John Burke explained how his students were able to get the robots to do what they want, and it involves an app they can use on their phones.

“First, they test everything out online, in a virtual world; then they program it; then they download that to the robot,” he said.

As software on the robot updates, so does the app on their phones, which they can use as a remote control for the robot.

“It’s very cool,” Burke said.

“Young children are literally surrounded by science and technology, on phones, on TV, on computers,” said Hunts-in-Winter, so finding out what makes it all work is inherently interesting to them, not to mention important for their future education – and, arguably, for the future of society in general.